Rainforest Wolves of Alaska’s Alexander Archipelago

Southeast Alaska — it’s wet here. With more than 200 inches of precipitation each year, this is one of the rainiest places in the United States behind Mount Waialeale on Hawaii’s Kauai Island and a few locations on Maui.

a dark, forested stream
A forested stream in Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. 📷 Mark Brennan

Home to one of only seven rare coastal temperate rainforests in the world, Alaska’s southeast “panhandle” is carpeted by old growth trees like Western and mountain hemlock, Sitka spruce, and Alaska yellow cedar.

There are wolves here too.

A smaller, darker-colored variant linked to the rainforest environment dens in cavities beneath the big root systems of very large, old trees. Their dens have three things in common: They’re located in old growth, on elevated ground (an important consideration in such wet conditions) and within 100 meters of freshwater. Because of this specificity, dens tend to get reused by new generations. Pups are born mid-April through early July.

a woman standing in a creek by a large tree
A section of a large tree that once stretched toward the sky in Southeast Alaska’s coastal rainforest rests in a salmon stream. 📷 USFWS/Will Rice

The Islands Wolf: Canis lupis ligoni

The Alexander Archipelago — over a thousand islands spanning about 300 miles — hugs the coast of Southeast Alaska. Today, the wolf that bears the archipelago’s name is primarily restricted to Alaska’s Tongass National Forest — especially the large islands south of Frederick Sound. Their range extends down the British Columbia coastline to Vancouver Island.

Like other island goers, movement is limited. Compared to the large movements mainland living affords, Alexander Archipelago wolves must navigate the emergent tops of underwater mountains surrounded by deep watery fjords.

a wolf moving under large trees
Alexander Archipelago wolves on a trail camera in Southeast Alaska. US Forest Service

Over the course of their 6–8 year lifespan, they make a living pursuing the Sitka black-tailed deer (a smaller cousin of the mule deer), beavers, Pacific salmon and even waterfowl, seals, marine invertebrates, and the occasional black bear.

a deer standing in a forest
A Sitka black-tailed deer in the Tongass National Forest. 📷 Rob Bertholf

Genetic evidence suggests that Alexander Archipelago wolves (often also referred to as Pacific or coastal wolves in the scientific literature) are descended from the Great Plains wolf (canis lupus nubilus), a subspecies of gray wolf officially declared extinct in 1926. As the glaciers retreated, their ancestors followed the deer north. These island wolves are unique from the larger Interior Alaska (Yukon) variety that likely inhabited the Bering Land Bridge that connected what is now Alaska and Siberia during the ice age.

There are at least six environmentally and genetically distinct North American grey wolf populations, including the wolves of Alaska’s Alexander Archipelago.

a mountainous view with clouds and trees
Prince of Wales Island, Alaska. 📷 Brian Barr/US Forest Service

Islands are places where fragility and strength can coexist. Innovative ways of surviving emerge from tough living, and uniqueness arises. It slips between big old trees in the form of a small wolf.

a digital drawing of a wolf eating a salmon in a thick forest
Alexander Archipelago wolf. 🎨 Christina Nelson/USFWS

Katrina Liebich works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, External Affairs, and is based in Anchorage, Alaska.

In Alaska we are shared stewards of world renowned natural resources and our nation’s last true wild places. Our hope is that each generation has the opportunity to live with, live from, discover and enjoy the wildness of this awe-inspiring land and the people who love and depend on it.

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U.S.Fish&Wildlife Alaska

U.S.Fish&Wildlife Alaska

Stories from Alaska by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service